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July 01, 2009

Platonic Refrigerators

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I spent the first year or two in college as an Industrial Design major and retain a casual interest in the subject. Besides a concern for ergonomics in product design, graphical interfaces for computer software as well as in problem avoidance during everyday activities, a continuing subject of interest is design evolution and the related concept of a Platonic-like ultimate general form dictated by a variety of constraints.

I treated product evolution of passenger aircraft here and that for automobiles here.

The present posting deals with the interesting case of a class of product that has varied comparatively little over time in terms of its general appearance -- the refrigerator. True, there have been important changes over the last century and more in terms of the means of refrigeration as well as the materials used in construction. Nevertheless, in essence, a refrigerator is simply a box with one, two or a few doors taking up most of one side -- pretty much what ice boxes were a hundred years ago.

Information on the refrigerator's predecessor, the ice box, is here, and a history of the refrigerator is here.

Jeffrey L. Meikle in his book about the early days of Industrial Design offers an amusing treatment of the refrigerator and its relationship to design salesmanship as practiced in the 1930s. On page 104 of the1979 edition, he notes that while Henry Dreyfuss' General Electric refrigerators remained little changed from 1934 to 1939, Raymond Loewy's Sears Coldspot refrigerators changed details from year to year during the late 1930s. He writes:

A "case history" written later in Loewy's office rationalized the continued redesign of the Coldspot. Sears executives "might have been dubious about the possibilities of a new and better looking box" because Loewy had presumably designed "a 'perfect' refrigerator." But the designer himself did not see his design "as a masterpiece, but as a step in the evolution towards perfection."

What Loewy failed to realize -- or was afraid to admit -- was that refrigerators already had essentially reached their ultimate general form and that he, Dreyfuss, and any other refrigerator designers were mostly playing around with incidental details. Such an admission would contradict a "perfection" sales pitch common in the early days of the profession when the concept of bringing in an outside designer was still controversial. I should note that the ideal of perfect or ultimate forms emerging on the basis of an item's function and component materials was part of the ideology of modernism during the early 20th century.

Below are examples of refrigerator design.


Ice box - ca. 1900
A block of ice -- typically 25 or 50 pounds -- would be placed in the upper compartment. Foods that needed to stay frozen or nearly so would be there too. The lower compartment would be for items such as milk or vegetables that needed only to be kept cool.

G.E. Monitor Top - 1928
These were common in the 1920s. The mechanical bits are in the cylindrical attachment on top of the main box. Those gaps make for dust traps, so keeping this part clean was a chore.

Sears Coldspot, designed by Raymond Loewy - 1935
This is an early example of a refrigerator formed by an industrial designer. The mechanical parts are now at the bottom of the box -- where dust collects unnoticed.

Recent Kenmore Side-by-Side
Refrigerator design changed little for decades. Recent models have features such water dispensers on the outside and placing the freezer compartment to one side, rather than at the top.

Recent Kenmore Elite 4-Door
More doors and features bring greater profits. This Kenmore has four doors. Some current refrigerators have the freezer compartment at the bottom instead of the top or side. I regard variations in doors and the addition of outside dispensers as relatively minor variations on the functional theme established years ago by ice boxes.

Seen in Lyon, France - June, 2009
I took this from the balcony outside our hotel room. The refrigerators in the window have the classic shape: all that's new are the colorful paint jobs, some based on national flags.



posted by Donald at July 1, 2009


Interesting. We recently moved from the two door side by side to the style similar to the four door. While it may not seem like a big change, our fridge is always crammed because we like to cook, and the new one is much easier to use than the previous model. A lot of subtle changes in arrangement can add up to a big change in use experience. The new design feels like a big improvement, even though it may not look very different. Small subtleties can accumulate to a big change in user experience, and that must represent a real challenge to designers, perhaps even as difficult as making interesting changes in apparent form.

Posted by: Cliff Styles on July 1, 2009 8:20 PM

There's a coincidence - just yesterday I wondered whether the design of the filing cabinet has changed, or even could change.

Posted by: dearieme on July 1, 2009 8:36 PM

Great posting. Terrific seeing the images lined up like that. A propos of nothing, I grew up in the '50s and '60s in a family that referred to the family refrigerator as an "ice box" rather than as a "fridge," which was the term most of my friends' families used.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 1, 2009 11:27 PM

"Ice box". I remember that. When I was growing up "fridge" and "ice box" were used pretty much interchangeably. Of course, my parents had grown up in households that used actual ice boxes like the c. 1900 model pictured. Can't date exactly when "ice box" completely passed out of usage.

Posted by: Moira Breen on July 2, 2009 8:46 AM

PhilosoPhreez Industries has introduced the ultimate platonic refrigerator. It has a picture of Plato painted on it.

I wonder how many Union Jack fridges they sell in Lyon.

Posted by: Rick Darby on July 2, 2009 8:56 AM

Up next will be fridges with built-in inventory management and/or RFID.

No pictures of glass door fridges? I always liked those. You can see what's in there without opening it.

Posted by: oiuou on July 2, 2009 2:13 PM

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